A sticky and yummy situation
FRIENDLY, W.Va.-Looking at the various batches of the pure maple syrup in Cedar Run Farm’s bottling room is like looking at a paint swatch for your pancakes.
Ranging from a light yellow, to an amber, to a rich brown, the various batches of the sweet syrup represent different grades of syrup, all of which are produced over a relatively short four-to-six week production season, happening right now.
But even when the sap is not flowing, Pleasant County’s Cedar Run Farm keeps Bill and Debbie Metz and their family incredibly busy. The process of making pure maple syrup is a year-round one, and while this year’s sap is just beginning to flow, Bill and Debbie’s son Chris Metz is already planning for next year’s yield.
“Right now we’re counting trees and marking trees to tap next year,” he said.
Close to 625 trees-mostly Sugar Maples-are currently tapped on the Metz’s farm. The tapped trees are easy to spot. They are connected by an extensive series of tubing which carries the sap into containers in the Metz’ woods.
The farm has been making syrup for five years now and steadily building on its number of tapped trees each year, said Chris. Next year, they hope to almost triple that number, he said.
While many of the lines of tubing are run in the early fall, Chris and Bill do not actually tap the trees until just before the trees are ready to drip in early to mid-February, said Chris.
This year, the harsh winter weather caused a later than usual start time. Cedar Run Farm started its first batch of syrup Feb. 20, a full 10 days later than last year’s start time, said Chris.
Weather plays an important part in the short production window, which lasts six weeks at best.
“A good freeze-thaw cycle makes for a good season,” said Debbie.
A good series of nights that dip into the high 20s and sunny days that reach into the 40s will get the sap flowing best.
“We watch the weather forecast,” added Chris.
At the Washington County Home in Marietta, which has made its own maple syrup for around 30 years, a harsh winter is also slowing production, said Ted Williams, county home administrator.
“We tapped the trees last week, and we did get one run,” he said.
The county home typically taps about 100 trees on its property and makes 20 gallons of syrup a year, though in the past they’ve made as much as 46 gallons.
The county home tried tubing like Cedar Run Farm, but found it burdensome.
“We’re just using old-fashioned buckets,” said Williams.
A bucket is hung from a hook near where a spout has been affixed to the tree and the sap is collected manually by between six to eight residents that help with the process, he said.
The county home does not sell its product. Rather, they use it on site, said Williams.
As the sap is collected, Cedar Run Farm pumps its sap and the county home manually transports its sap to the aptly named “Sugar Shack.” There the sap is gravity fed into an evaporator which boils away the water in the sap and reduces it to the right percentage of sugar to be deemed syrup.
At Cedar Run Farm, the large metal evaporator is heated with a steady stream of logs to around 900 degrees and has to be watched closely during the reduction process, said Chris Metz.
A big misconception about maple syrup is that anything is added during the process, said Debbie Metz.
“People always ask us ‘Well do you add sugar or maple flavoring?'” she said.
But the sugar and maple flavoring are right there in the sap and absolutely nothing is added in the process, she said.
That is not to say there are not different flavors of maple syrup. The length into the sap season affects the color and flavor of the syrup, she explained.
“In the beginning of the season it’s usually lighter. It has a darker color and more robust flavor as the season progresses,” she said.
Cedar Run Farm follows the syrup grading system set up by the Vermont Maple Sugar Makers Association, which has four grades of syrup. The Vermont Fancy is the lightest, followed by Grade A Medium Amber, Grade A Dark Amber and Vermont Grade B.
The lightest maple syrup used to be en vogue, and producers would compete to get the earliest and lightest colored yield, said Debbie.
However, opinions have shifted in recent years, in part thanks to the use of darker maple syrups in cooking, she said.
The Metzes also prefer the darker syrup.
“I’m not a fan of the lighter flavors. They look pretty, but I don’t eat with my eyes,” said Bill.
Regardless of flavor preference, there is one thing all sugar makers can agree on-pure maple syrup is much better than the maple-flavored syrups sold in many grocery stores.
“What you find in a grocery store is a concoction that is made to taste like maple syrup, but there isn’t really any maple syrup in it at all,” said Williams.
Most brand name syrups are corn syrup and contain a variety of unnatural ingredients, added Debbie Metz.
Maple syrup is typically more expensive because it takes so much sap to make and the process is time consuming, she said.
The evaporator can produce approximately two gallons of maple syrup an hour. And it takes a staggering amount of sap-approximately 110 gallons-to make those two gallons of syrup, said Chris.
When it is ready, the syrup will be heated to exactly seven degrees hotter than the boiling point of water, which can vary based on barometric pressure, he said.
That temperature is calculated and entered into gage on the evaporator. When the sap reaches that temperature, it is automatically released from the evaporator into a nearby container, said Chris.
The syrup is then run through a filter to get that pure, clean final product, said Debbie.
Finally, the syrup is bottled up and ready to be sold at a variety of local retailers.
Cedar Run Farm syrups are sold at Smith Candies and Galaxy Food Center in St. Marys, as well as at Mulberry Lane Country Store and Mother Earth Foods in Parkersburg.